Round 9: Sea Eagles v Broncos preview
High-flying Sea Eagles to soar in Brisbane
Defying pre-season expectations to sit sixth on the ladder after eight rounds, the Manly Sea Eagles will be out to make a statement against the Brisbane Broncos in the inaugural Magic Round.
Recording their best start since 2014 with five wins over the first third of the season, the return of Des Hasler has seen the two-time premiership winning coach turn a group of unfashionables into a united front - a feat made all the more impressive given the unavailability of key players through injury and suspension.
Coming into their first Friday primetime appearance for three years off the back of a dogged 18-10 win over Canterbury-Bankstown, the Sea Eagles will be in familiar territory at Suncorp Stadium having previously contested five double headers against Brisbane for three wins throughout the 2010s.
Already without established halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Trent Hodkinson, young playmaker Lachlan Croker has joined the club's growing casualty ward with a hamstring strain sustained against the Bulldogs. As a result Apisai Koroisau will shift to the halves allowing Manase Fainu to start at hooker for the first time this season, while Jorge Taufua replaces last week's debutant, Abbas Miski, on the wing. Morgan Boyle and Kelepi Tanginoa have been elevated to the bench with Addin Fonua-Blake also out of the squad; however Cade Cust and Zach Docker-Clay remain strong contenders to come into the final 17 for their NRL debuts.
Drawing the ire of club greats and supporters alike after equalling their worst start to a season this decade, the Brisbane Broncos will be hoping to conjure a reversal of form as they travel ‘away' to Suncorp Stadium.
Thoroughly outclassed by South Sydney, 38-6, in last Thursday's much-anticipated grudge match, life without Kodi Nikorima will begin earnest after the New Zealand international was allowed to take up an immediate release to the Warriors in a show of faith towards rookie halfback Thomas Dearden.
Making the most of difficult circumstances on debut, Dearden should expect greater support on Friday night following a sub-standard showing that saw Payne Haas finish as the only member of the Broncos forward pack to run for over 100 metres at ANZ Stadium.
Winning five of their past eight clashes against the Sea Eagles - including last year's dominant 48-16 final round win - the Broncos will be fully aware of the importance of victory as they approach the precipice of 1999 where the side was forced to run the gauntlet to qualify in eighth position with 12 wins and a draw from their final 14 matches, after managing just three competition points over the first ten rounds.
Responding to the disappointing start to the year by swinging the selection axe, Gehamat Shibasaki and Kotoni Staggs have been preferred ahead of Jamayne Isaako and James Roberts in the backline, while a knee injury sustained by Andrew McCullough during training will see Jake Turpin start at hooker.
Who to watch: Considered among the leading contenders to claim the wooden spoon following the disaster of last season, the Sea Eagles have proven to be the surprise packets of 2019 in large part thanks to the impact of Manase Fainu. Named to start for the first time this season after working in tandem with Apisai Koroisau to form one of the most dynamic dummy half partnerships in the league, the 20-year-old has consistently delivered under the guidance of Des Hasler to earn the attention of New Zealand and Tonga in a brewing international tussle for his services. Averaging six runs and 24 tackles in just over a half of game time each week, expect Fainu to provide Manly with the spark capable of breaking the game open on Friday night.
Relegated to the bench in a bid to energise the Broncos forward pack, Tevita Pangai Jr will be out to remind selectors of his talents leading into the representative season. Touted as a strong contender to debut for New South Wales after a destructive start to 2019, the 23-year-old Tongan international has embodied many of the issues that have plagued Brisbane under Anthony Seibold with waning performances that have failed to live up to expectations. Capable of annihilating opponents by running at will and providing strong second phase play for good measure, expect Pangai Jr to respond in a big way after producing less than 100 metres in last week's humbling loss to South Sydney.
My tip: Failing to get their due credit after overcoming major mid-match injuries to claim the scalps of South Sydney and Canberra, the Sea Eagles will gain plenty of plaudits on Friday night with a performance to convert early season naysayers into believers. Sea Eagles by 12.